On Sacred Attunement by Michael Fishbane - Originality and Density
In responding to Sacred Attunement, we were asked to assess how useful the book might be as a teaching aid and its potential to energize the theology of our movement. My frank assessment on both counts is: very little. Why? I will focus upon two objections: the idea is not terribly original and Fishbane’s presentation is too dense to be accessible to the vast majority of Jews.
First, Fishbane’s core idea is that God’s presence is all around, ever accessible, and that the theological task is to attune ourselves to the presence of God through a life of study, prayer, and practice. He writes about how normal experience is interrupted and “the human being is awakened, if only for the time being, to vaster dimensions of experience and the contingencies of experience” and how the power of these interruptions “is to remind the self that the ‘merely other’ of everydayness is grounded in an Other of more exceeding depths and heights” (preface, p. x). Such an idea has found its expression before, both in secular and Jewish sources. In her 1989 book Mindfulness, Harvard psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer wrote about “the psychological and physical costs we pay because of pervasive mindlessness and, more important, about the benefits of greater control, richer options, and transcended limits that mindfulness can make possible.”1 In his book Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2005), our movement’s own Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) calls these interruptions “leave taking” and explores how Jewish texts and meditation can bring us to a higher level of awareness of God in our everyday lives. In his 1952 book, Rabbi Max Kadushin wrote, “[T]he rabbinic experience of God can be thought of as normal mysticism. The ordinary, familiar, every-day things and occurrences, we have observed, constitute occasions for the experience of God. Such things as one’s daily sustenance, the very day itself, are felt as manifestations of God’s loving-kindness, calling forth Berakot . . . [A]lthough the experience of God is like none other, the occasions for experiencing Him, for having a consciousness of Him, are manifold, even if we consider only those that call for Berakot.”2 Fishbane’s formulation of these ideas and how they intersect with traditional Jewish forms is much more complex, but that brings me to my second objection.
The book’s prose is far too dense and difficult to be used in any but the most advanced adult educational settings (if those). Fishbane is aware that religious language must be accessible. He writes, “one may surely substitute the abstract notion of divine beneficence for the specific image of God’s hand, or the idea of providence for the figure of an eye; but then one is no longer reciting prayer as living theology, but as a series of philosophical propositions and thoughts. In doing so, we risk losing the flesh-and-blood ground of our religious lives, and the capacity of speech to point us toward the throbbing heart of divine mystery” (p. 142). On the whole, Fishbane must heed his own counsel. I am not averse to working through academic articles but I confess: reading his book was, for me, painstaking. Fearing that I was missing something, I polled several others who more regularly read theology and their reaction was the same. As Fishbane himself suggests, religious language ideally serves theological ends and should express concrete joys and wants. The style of this book is an obstacle to its theological goals and, more certainly, to its use for broad education in our movement.
While reading Sacred Attunement, I also read Have a Little Faith, the most recent book by New York Times best-selling author Mitch Albom. About our late colleague, Albert Lewis (z”l), Albom writes, “You were a clergyman of the people, never above the people, and people clamored to hear you, stuffing in your sermons as if to miss them would be a sin in itself. . . . How can I—how can any of us—let you go? You are woven through us, from birth to death. You educated us, married us, comforted us. You stood at our mileposts, our weddings, our funerals. You gave us courage when tragedy struck, and when we howled at God, you stirred the embers of our faith and reminded us, as a respected man once said, that the only whole heart is a broken heart.”3 Whether we like it or not, more people will learn about the Conservative movement’s approach to God through Albom’s book than through any text we’ve published in the past ten years. I am proud that the Conservative movement of the twentieth century formed the bridge between the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people in America as they, and their children, struggled to build a Jewish life for themselves in the New World. That is an important legacy. Relevance is a value. Albom’s book reminds us that our relationships with those we teach are an important religious legacy and that, when we write about religion and theology, a personal, narrative-based approach reaches a broader audience.
I read Fishbane’s “Acknowledgments” section with some sadness: “A certain urgency has now claimed me: to make my thoughts clear to myself, for honesty’s sake in due season; and to provide my family with a spiritual testament of my values and worldview. The initial drafts of this work had this private character; but over time, and with ongoing reflections on the content, the horizon of concern and audience expanded. The result is a more evolved and public document” (p. 211). Respectfully, I disagree that a public document is more evolved when it is drained of more personal context that helps the reader understand how the author’s values and worldview were meant to impact his children. Fishbane continues, “I therefore wish to inform my sons, dear Eitan and Elisha, of the original intention, and to urge them to read the present version with its first aim in mind: a father’s gift of tradition and truthfulness. I am confident that the lights of a lifetime of shared study and conversation will still shine through the garments of this new formulation” (p. 211). I should like to have read the original formulation. “Teach them to your children,” says the Torah. Why shouldn’t I learn theology from what Fishbane would have said to his children? Is a document cleansed of its personal nature “more evolved”? Our people don’t want to be taught by disembodied teachers; they will not be inspired to a life of Torah by abstractions.
In his introduction to C.S. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed, Douglas H. Gresham observed,
In referring to this book in conversation, one often tends to leave out, either inadvertently or from laziness, the indefinite article at the beginning of the title. This we must not do, for the title completely and thoroughly describes what this book is, and thus expresses very accurately its real value. Anything entitled “Grief Observed” would have to be so general and nonspecific as to be academic in its approach and thus of little use to anyone approaching or experiencing bereavement. This book, on the other hand, is a stark recounting of one man’s studied attempts to come to grips with and in the end defeat the emotional paralysis of the most shattering grief of his life.4
I yearn to read A Sacred Attunement, not Sacred Attunement. (That Fishbane’s subtitle is “A Spiritual Theology” changes very little. Readers of Sacred Attunement are left to wonder who the author is and how his theology is influenced by his personal experiences.) Later in the “Acknowledgments” section, Fishbane writes: “During the final months of this work, deep sadness infused my meditations—due to the death of my mother, Bernice Fishbane, and the sudden loss of my daughter-in-law, Leah Levitz Fishbane” (p. 212). How do those events alter, or not alter, Fishbane’s theology? I seek universal theological lessons filtered through the crucible of individual experience, because it is in that crucible where their value is tested. Heschel wrote, “Harsh and bitter are the problems which religion comes to solve: ignorance, evil, malice, power, agony, despair. These problems cannot be solved through generalities, through philosophical symbols. Our problem is: Do we believe what we confess? Do we mean what we say? We do not suffer symbolically. We suffer literally, truly, deeply.”5 What good is a theology if it operates in a vacuum, sealed from suffering and pain? And, if it helps Fishbane to navigate those mysteries, that is what I crave to learn.
Ironically, Fishbane understands that theology must begin with, and constantly return to, the world: “[T]he first task of theology is to provide a perspective that would place one firmly upon the earth . . . [W]e are always mortal creatures living in this world . . . So how might we proceed?—Perhaps by paying closest attention to the concrete realities of our lives, as we experience them on earth . . .” (p. 13). Can theologians effectively teach others to pay attention to their own lives without revealing something of themselves in the process? Can one be a teacher of Torah while hiding so much of oneself from one’s students? Perhaps, but that is not the kind of Torah teacher modern Conservative Jews need.
- Ellen Langer, Mindfulness (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1989), p. 2.
- Max Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1952), p. 203.
- Mitch Albom, Have a Little Faith (New York: Hyperion Books, 2009), p. 239.
- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1961), p. xx.
- “Toward an Understanding of Halacha” in Spiritual Grandeur and Moral Audacity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), pp. 128–9.
This piece is republished with permission from the Rabbinical Assembly. It originally appeared in the journal Conservative Judaism, Volume 62, Number 3-4.